Canadian Jewish News, March 16, 2006

Children inspiring children

March 16, 2006
Canadian Jewish News

It is hard to believe that it was simply cold, random chance that brought together the lives of a young teacher in Tokyo – Fumiko Ishioka – and a septuagenarian Toronto businessman – George Brady – more than five years ago. Too much dazzling goodness has sparked from the meeting of their deeply humane, steadfast, flint-like natures.

Their story – the poignant circumstances of their meeting and the educational work they have carried on since then – became the powerful, award-winning story called Hana’s Suitcase. As most readers of The CJN know, Hana was Brady’s younger sister. And the suitcase is the one she carried with her to Auschwitz in 1944 on the last journey of her young life.

Some five years ago, Brady’s good friend Marty Goldberg told The CJN about Fumiko’s unprecedented work in Tokyo and of her remarkable meeting with George. CJN staff writer Paul Lungen wrote the story. CBC writer/producer Karen Levine read it in The CJN and was so moved that she produced a radio documentary about Fumiko, George and Hana’s suitcase that aired on the CBC. Levine was then persuaded to convert the documentary into a children’s book that was published by Second Story Press. Hana’s Suitcase was the brilliant result.

The story is an astonishingly resonating tale for youngsters that is currently being read and told around the globe in some 30 different languages. It inter-mingles the details of Hana’s life in Europe with the efforts of Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, and her eight- to 18-year-old students, appropriately called the Small Wings, more than 50 years after Hana lived, to discover Hana’s fate. Those efforts led to their life-altering encounter with Hana’s only surviving immediate family member, her older brother, George.

As of last week, thankfully, Hana’s Suitcase can also be seen on stage. Renowned Canadian playwright Emil Sher has adapted the book into a compelling play. Directed by Allen MacInnis, Hana’s Suitcase is being performed until April 27 in Toronto at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People.

It is a moving, emotion-evoking production. MacInnis’ direction is tight, well-paced, creatively meshing the children’s present search for Hana’s ultimate fate with the tragedy of the past they eventually discover.

The sets are a clever aid to the telling of the tale that depict Tokyo, the Bradys’ home in Nove Mesto, Czechoslovakia, their prison in Theriesenstadt and their final stop in Auschwitz.Whether as a backdrop for archival film footage or as pieces of torn fragments of a life that slowly find their way together again, the sets combine function with esthetic, stark, minimalist punctuations to the narrative told by the actors.

And the actors execute their roles thoughtfully, sensitively, with striking deference alternatively to the wounding details of Hana’s life and the healing, guileless naivetés of the Small Wings.
The performance last Sunday was a special benefit production whose proceeds were dedicated to the Japanese Holocaust Resource Centre and Ishioka’s ongoing research and promotion of tolerance around the world. Ishioka and Brady were in attendance and addressed the audience both before and after the production.

Ishioka spoke confidently and forthrightly, praising Brady for his courage and his generosity of soul.
“It’s been five years since I came to Canada to meet George. Through learning about the Holocaust, the children in Japan learn about what is important to make the world a better place.
“All the letters, e-mails, poems, projects and songs exchanged among the children have been so inspirational for me. We will share with Japanese children, the e-mails and stories of Canadian children.
“It is a beautiful example of children inspiring children. Hana has given me a great gift.”
Brady spoke softly, almost self-consciously, praising Fumiko for her courage and her generosity of soul.
“Fumiko has visited over 200 schools in Japan sharing with children the story of Hana’s Suitcase. She is responsible for teaching millions of children about tolerance and respect for each other.”
In the play, the character of Fumiko tells her young charges, “When you open hearts, you open minds.”

Five years ago, far away in Tokyo, the Small Wings of Fumiko Ishioka sent their message of “wanting to do good in the world” to George Brady in Toronto who, with tears in his disbelieving eyes, joined with them in their cause. Now Small Wings and Survivor together bring that message to millions more “small wings” around the world, in the prayerful hope that their minds and hearts too will be opened to the important story of Hana’s Suitcase.

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